Retired Israel Defense Forces General and former Knesset member Effie Eitam will speak at the Hillel Jewish University Center tonight to an audience of high school and college students, as well as community members; while attendees will be able to ask Eitam questions following his speech, many have been raised before he even arrives.
Namely, how much information must be shared with parents about a speaker before sending their children to hear him speak?
With money from a United Jewish Federation grant to sponsor Israel advocacy programming on campus, the Jewish National Fund and Hillel JUC organized the event, presented by Caravan for Democracy, as part of Eitam’s second string of on-campus speaking engagements; Eitam also spoke at 13 universities last fall. Here in Pittsburgh, the Agency for Jewish Learning was invited to join, namely the organization’s J-Site branch, which aims to further teen Jewish education.
That community members raised concerns over Eitam’s visit isn’t surprising; Israeli political figures tend to polarize. Eitam’s traditionally right-leaning politics proved no exception. As Adrienne Indianer, western Pennsylvania regional director of JNF, said, “What’s controversial to one may not be controversial to another. It’s hard to say who’s not controversial to someone. I’m not sure how we would pick that person.”
The issue of contention for some parents of J-Site teens, then, was lack of background information provided about Eitam’s views of Israeli treatment of Arabs, even though his speech here dealt with the threat of a nuclear Iran.
J-Site parents were informed that students would be bused from regularly scheduled Wednesday classes to hear Eitam speak. While some parents who spoke with The Chronicle were either unaware or indifferent toward Eitam’s appearance, others complained that a more comprehensive background wasn’t provided.
“Both my husband and I were upset that more information wasn’t shared about who he was, and some of the controversial statements he’s made which were quite racist,” said J-Site parent Nancy Bernstein. “We felt that for that kind of a speaker, presented especially to younger students, the parents should be made more aware of his background and what he’s known for.”
Eitam’s statements that Israel’s relationship to its Arab citizenry “resemble(s) cancer. Cancer is a type of illness in which most of the people who die from it die because they were diagnosed,” (as quoted in Israeli newspaper Haaretz), caused some community members to label him a racist and speak out against his invitation to speak. The most intimate concern, though, was that “parents don’t know who he is,” said J-Site parent Deborah Fidel. “You get an e-mail that says your kid is going to hear an Israeli war hero, you think ‘OK, great.’ If more parents were aware, I think they might object pretty loudly.”
The event’s planners, however, maintain that Eitam’s views on Arab Israelis held little bearing over his speech on Iran.
“JNF certainly knew what his background is,” said Indianer. “He is somewhat right-leaning, but that’s not the context in which he was invited.”
“Mr. Eitam is a distinguished former member of the Israeli government who has an amazing track record, who is a pro-Israel speaker who we feel brings a pro-Israel voice to college campuses,” said Rebecca Kahn, JNF’s national campus programs manager. “He brings perspective. He’s articulate, thoughtful and eager to share his story with college and high school students.”
Though an initial e-mail alerting parents of J-Site’s attendance at Eitam’s speech didn’t include background information on the general, an information session was organized for students and held prior to the event. AJL believes that enough information was provided for parents to make an informed decision.
While high school minds often require parental guidance (J-Site teens were not required to attend), college students in attendance were freer to make up their own minds. To Hillel JUC Executive Director Aaron Weil, college students should be presented with information and allowed to make their own informed conclusions.
“Our goal is to both nurture and challenge students with opportunities to make difficult decisions,” said Weil. “If we can’t do that on campus, what hope do they have outside of campus? It’s about having faith in the intelligence of our students.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)